Nature Watch: The Bug Photographer of the Year Is Taking Heat for Drugging His Subjects

By David Schonauer   Wednesday December 8, 2021

Photographer Steve James bugs some people.

James, who is based in Northampton, UK, was recently named he 2021 Bug Photographer of the Year in the Buglife Bug Photography Awards. The is competition put on by the photo contest organizer Photocrowd in partnership with Buglife, a UK nonprofit that, notes PetaPixel,  bills itself as “the only organization in Europe devoted to the conservation of all invertebrates.”  Now in its second year, the contest is notable for being exclusively devoted to macro bug photography, “which is one of the most popular niches among macro photographers and a popular topic on Instagram,” adds PP. James won prizes including £2,500 (about $3,300) in cash.

Not long after he was announced as winner, however, James came under online assault when people began condemning his practices as a nature photographer. They pointed to a post he shared on Photocrowd in July, in which James described how he keeps his subject still long enough to create focus-stacked images.

“My new technique in anesthetizing insects rather than killing them seems to work on those creatures upon them as well so I may uncover more info in time,” James wrote.

The reaction to James's win was swift.

“Please stop giving credit and awards to photographers who are using highly unethical practices to obtain their images,” one amateur wildlife photographer from Scotland demanded.

“Can we imagine someone submitting a photo of a drugged tiger?” another photographer commented on the post. “Obviously not, so why’s it ok here?”

Another photographer noted that “for a competition that makes a point about stressing the importance of the creature’s welfare in the photos that are submitted, it’s incredible that they would reward the top spot to someone that openly discusses anesthetizing their subjects before photographing them.”

The Bug Photographer of the Year was quick to defend himself, however. “James says the current discourse and critique of his method are drawn more by the web’s mob mentality and virtue signaling than a good-faith conversation about insect rights,” notes the New York Post.

“The whole point of my work in ultra-macro is to show these creatures up close and have more sympathy for them. So I suppose I have achieved that. Most of my many failed shots are the result of the bug waking up too soon not because it died,” James said in a statement “The criticism is mainly due to an ignorance and trial by social media. I would like to see how these people deal with lice or complain that a commercial kitchen uses a bug zapper.”

The Buglife organization published a response to the controversy, noting that ethyl acetate was used by “some” photographers to anesthetize subjects for images entered in this year’s contest.

“And we spoke to the photographer who was our first choice for the grand prize this year, and who uses this method for some of his images,” noted Buglife. “We wanted to know whether or not it did result in the insects recovering and regaining full mobility and being seemingly unharmed. Based on these investigations we deemed this method to fall within the current awards rules.”

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